Yakuza 4 – the PS3 Attitude review
It’s only been a year since Sega launched Yakuza 3 in the West, so it’s no surprise that Yakuza 4 feels very familiar.
It hasn’t improved graphically. It still looks like an early PS3-era game, albeit a very stylish and colourful one. The arcade fighting mechanics haven’t changed much either. They’re still easy to learn and the finishers are still comically brutal, but constant fighting is still repetitive and we’re also still waiting for a decent targeting system.
We’re still exploring Kamurocho, Sega’s fictional representation of Kabukichō (Tokyo’s red-light district), and the city is mostly the same as before, but there are new people to meet and even some new parts to explore, including rooftops and underground areas. We are also still doing the same activities as before (i.e. shooting games of pool in-between fights with street punks and Yakuzas). There’s so much “still” in these opening paragraphs that we suspect you’ll be asking: “Do we really need this sequel?
Well, we’re actually delighted to be playing Yakuza 4. Sure, if Yakuza 3 left you feeling fatigued, we doubt you’ll want to throw another thirty-plus hours into Yakuza’s criminal underworld, but there are many Yakuza fans who can’t get enough of the series’ tangled storylines, many subplots and its bizarre – semi-naked bra-thieving – humour. Yakuza 4 has all of this in abundance.
And let’s face it, newcomers will hardly complain about a lack of innovation because they’ll be experiencing Yakuza’s unique essence for the first time. The hardest part of this review is trying to describe this essence to someone who hasn’t already experienced it before – you know, the type of game in which you witness a killer die in a car crash after he dropped a cigarette on his man-area while parked.
It’s hard to nail down Yakuza 4 because it’s made up of multiple elements. It’s part open-world JRPG, giving you the freedom to explore, chat and undertake sidequests. It has numerous shops and restaurants where players can stock up on supplies and satisfy their hunger, and arcades and gambling dens where carefree spenders can lose their money. There is also, erm, saucy entertainment at the hostess bars, strip clubs and massage parlours – the latter has an ‘interesting‘ mini-game if that’s your thing. There is always something to do in Kamurocho.
Yakuza has been called by many the Grand Theft Auto of Japan because of the sandbox aspect of its gameplay but this is a misleading title. It’s more JRPG-style exploration than proper open-world do-what-you-like gameplay. The player is free to explore as they please in-between story objectives, but the story definitely takes centre stage. In fact, we suspect many players will find themselves sticking solely to the story throughout their first play through. The good news is that you can revisit the your save file after completing the story to finish the sidequests.
Better comparisons can be drawn with the Dreamcast classic Shenmue. They both attempt to tell an emotionally rich story with themes of revenge and ambition, while still allowing you to explore a realistic world. But they also share a less than favourable comparison: they’re both cutscene heavy. Yakuza 4 has many cutscenes of Kojima length, but they’re usually a pleasure to watch thanks to some excellent directing.
It could still be a problem for those who find it hard to follow subtitles for too long, though. Yes, unless you understand Japanese, you’ll need to read a lot, but we’re sure you’ll be fine if you’ve ever enjoyed a subtitled film. Plus, the PSN charts often show the PSOne era Final Fantasy games to be doing well – so clearly many people aren’t being put off by having to read in games.
Both games also try to blend JRPG exploration with beat ‘em up action. When a player is confronted by a young upstart looking to ‘borrow’ your money, the game turns into a 3D brawler, in which they will punch, kick, block, dodge and land combos. There is a limited number of attacks at the beginning, but as is the case with Shenmue, new skills are unlocked as the player progresses. By the end of the game, the player will have a wide selection of ball-busting moves at their disposal.
Yakuza 4’s combat is very intuitive and easy to master. It runs on a soft attack/hard attack/grapple set-up without any complicated button presses. Sadly, it’s also very shallow in this respect, and the lack of complexity can dampen the experience. After a while, fights tend to turn into repetitive ‘Square’ pressing exercises. The dumb and homogeneous enemies are more to blame for this, mind. Players can face tens of them at a time, but they will all fight and move in pretty much the same manner. Where’s the fun in that?
It falls to the ‘heat’ attacks and weapons to raise the excitement levels. Weapons are self-explanatory: the player will grab an item from the street (such as signs or a traffic cone) and useit to knock their enemy into a new reality. If a player uses a bike it’ll fall apart as they land hits, until all that’s left is the wheel. Players can then smash the wheel over their foe’s head, making them look as though they’re wearing some sort of New Age ruff.
That last bit is an example of a heat move. There’s a heat gauge at the top of the screen that fills as the player lands punches and kicks. When it’s full, the player can use devastating situation-specific finishers by simply pressing ‘Triangle’ when the time is right. A player can use heat attacks to smash an enemy’s head into a wall before jumping on their head once they’ve fallen to the floor. They can also unleash backbreaking suplexes on to fences and pick up enemies by their feet and spin them around before sending them flying. Players can also knock two oncoming enemies’ heads together in true Laurel and Hardy fashion. Heat attacks are overpowered but they’re still immensely satisfying, creating a welcome sense of fun about the combat.
While the series is still suffering from repetitive fighting, Yakuza 4 has at least managed to improve this issue significantly by giving the player four characters to use throughout the game. This is a big change: previous Yakuza games had you playing as Kazuma Kiryu at all times. The series stalwart – and all-round great fighter – is still around, but players won’t get to control Kazuma until part four, a good fifteen hours in.
The other three parts (not including the final chapter, where every character is playable) are spent controlling three different characters, each with their own unique fighting talents. First up is Shun Akiyama, who has super-fast feet; part two has the player controlling Taiga Saejima, a giant of a man, built like a tree and capable of landing super-powerful attacks; and part three has players control Masayoshi Tanimura, a jujitsu expert whose fighting style is based around parries and counters.
Just as the player starts to get bored of one fighting style, the game soon moves them on to the next character where they’ll start from scratch learning new moves. The downside is that some players might get frustrated at having to learn a new style just as they found one they like. We personally found Taiga Saejima quite cumbersome and were actually saddened not to be controlling Akiyama any longer.
That’s also down to us growing fond of Akiyama. He has an excellent personality: very sharp witted and laid back; he is knowingly confident without ever coming across as arrogant. His story is interesting, too. He used to be homeless but now he’s one of the wealthiest citizens in Kamurocho, not that it’s noticeable from his appearance and often lazy demeanour. He runs a money lending business, but he isn’t your traditional loan shark (but that’s all we say about that). He also finds himself heavily involved with the Yakuzas, as you’d expect.
All four characters have interesting stories and motivations for why they’re fighting. You meet Saejima in jail. He’s been on death-row for decades after supposedly killing 18 rival gang members in a famous hit. Saejima breaks out of prison (surprisingly one of the flatter moments in the game) so he can uncover the truth behind the hit – and of course, so he can beat up hundreds of Yakuzas and take part in cage matches.
His story is very different from that of Tanimura, who is a rebellious detective and gambling addict who doesn’t always follow the letter of the law. His father, also a detective, died in mysterious circumstances around the time of Saejima’s hit and Tanimura has sworn to find out what really happened.
Fans of previous Yakuza games will know all about Kazuma. The former chairman of the Tojo clan, the leading Yakuza clan, begins the game back in retirement at his orphanage, but he decides to go active again after a chance meeting with Saejima helps him to realise that dark forces are at work back in Kamurocha.
Each character has different sidequests that suit their personality and role within the game. Saejima can train a young fighter at the dojo, and Tanimura will receive radio calls whenever there’s a disturbance on the streets. When not fighting crime, Tanimura will often want to gamble. Akiyama, aside from his money lending business, also runs a hostess club, and one of your tasks in the game is to hire a hostess, dress her, train her and send her out to make money from the punters.
From a feminists perspective, it’s one of many questionable moments in the game, but surprisingly, it didn’t bother us much. We enjoyed the change of pace and found the mini game surprisingly deep and cheerful. (This author’s partner actually yanked the controller out of his hands for this section because she wasn’t pleased with how he was dressing the hostess. It should be said, his approach was more successful!)
One possible reasons for why the sexism didn’t trouble us could be the warm nature of the game. Don’t get us wrong, Yakuza is full of murder, death, deceit and tragedy – there’s a lot of tragedy – but there is always an overall sense of justice and sometimes gentleness running through the actions of the characters, and the camaraderie between the ‘good guys’ is very strong. Plus, Yakuza isn’t a game that should be taken too seriously.
It has a bizarre sense of humour, which is most noticeable during the ‘reflections’. These are unusual situations that occur when the player is out and about in the city. Within the event, the character will see something interesting, which will lead to a revelation (i.e. he’ll learn a new move).
The first reflection happens on the rooftops. A half-naked fat guy with pants on his head is seen stealing a bra from a washing line. He tries to make an acrobatic escape but he slips on the railings and falls off the building. On his way down to the ground he unsuccessfully tries to use the bra as a lasso. As he plummets to his death, there is emotive orchestral music playing in the background.
Another reflection sees two Yakuzas try to toss a guy into the sea in an oil drum filled with concrete, but they can’t because the drum is too heavy. They argue and drop him, which leads to the oil drum rolling around the docks before we see the ouch/oops moment. This is seen when controlling Saejima, who decides to memorise the moment by carving his revelation into a large block of wood (the others just record it on their phones) – it’s all very bizarre, side-tickling fun.
The off-beat humour is what appeals to us most about Yakuza 4, alongside its dramatic storylines and interesting characters. The tone is completely different from most story-based games out there. Most games are trying their hardest to be serious, but Sega has gone the other way with Yakuz. What other game lets you storm a Yakuza stronghold with a gang of homeless warriors? Exactly.
Yakuza 4 certainly has its faults, and they’re mostly in the combat department. The fighting isn’t terrible – the finishers are actually stunning – but it should be a lot slicker. It makes fighting-heavy sections, such as the ending, feel like a chore. This shouldn’t be the case.
We’d also have liked to have seen more changes to the somewhat tired design, but it hasn’t stopped us enjoying another thirty-plus hours in Kamurocho. We think Yakuza fans will simply enjoy meeting the new characters, seeing old favourites again and simply enjoying Yakuza’s humour.
Whether newcomers will enjoy it as much will depend on how open they are to Japanese culture and traditional JRPG design, both of which are becoming ever more niche in the current gaming market. If they are interested in that style of game, they can’t go far wrong with Yakuza 4.
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